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Of the German-language operas composed between Wagner’s Parsifal (1882) and Richard Strauss’s Salome (1905), only Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel (1893) has survived. This chapter surveys the mostly forgotten works that form the context of Strauss’s early operas. In addition to his musical style, Wagner’s concept of redemption through love and reception of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics exerted a powerful influence on the next generation, as seen in music dramas by Max von Schillings (Ingwelde), Pfitzner (Der arme Heinrich), and Strauss (Guntram). The new genre of fairy tale opera (Märchenoper) often presented lighter versions of Wagnerian style and ideology, such as in Hänsel und Gretel, Alexander Ritter’s Der faule Hans, and Siegfried Wagner’s Der Bärenhäuter. Even comic opera was strongly influenced, bifurcating into Meistersinger spinoffs (Schillings’s Der Pfeifertag) and harmless bourgeois idylls (Eugen d’Albert’s Die Abreise). Verismo-influenced hybrids include d’Albert’s Tiefland and Wilhelm Kienzl’s Der Evangelimann. Strauss’s Salome represented an act of liberation.
From the last quarter of the nineteenth century on, the name Bayreuth has stood for the realization of a new kind of musical theater developed by Richard Wagner, which ever since has been recognized as a major contribution to the world’s cultural heritage. For Strauss, both Wagner and Bayreuth were profoundly influential. In his early years, he believed he could see in it the fulfilment of his aesthetic ideals, and accordingly, he sought closeness to the milieu of the idolized “Master.” With increasing maturity, however, it became clear to him that although Wagner was one of the fixed stars in his musical and dramatic thinking, the “Wahnfried ideology” would remain foreign to his nature. As early as his time in Weimar, the “cult of Wagner” seemed to be something alien to Strauss, something he would overcome. In juxtaposition to the formative Bayreuth episode in Strauss’s early years, his two short engagements in 1933–34 take on the dubious appearance of a moral lapse.
Gender and sexuality were crucial to Wagner’s Ring even before a note was written; his aesthetic theories for nascent music drama were gendered from the start, with text the male sperm that fertilizes music-as-woman. Wagner’s attitudes to gender were in many ways typical of his time, with active man situated above passive woman in the biological and social hierarchy. But his works are more complex and even found supporters among contemporary feminists. In fact, it is often his female characters who act, not the men, and it is the women who restore order when men trigger chaos. Wagner himself saw correlations between his sexual life and his work; we here examine instances of congruence and incongruence. We also consider how Wagner’s approach to sexuality in his works influenced the composers, writers and artists who came after him.
Richard Wagner was a political being throughout his life, even if his various political beliefs and commitments were not necessarily consistent or coherent. These beliefs found their way into his works. This is not surprising. Wagner despised what he saw as the shallowness and superficiality of contemporary opera. He aimed to supplant this with serious and substantial music dramas, of which the Ring is the grandest and most comprehensive example. Its mythological setting and characters can be deceptive. There are many implicit references to contemporary social and economic life. Wagner intended his work to have topical relevance. George Bernard Shaw, an early enthusiast for Wagner, was one of the first to see this. It is a mark of Wagner’s far-sightedness that he made an exploitative attitude to nature one of the key failings in the old order which was to be replaced. But how was this to happen? In his many drafts of Brunnhilde’s final peroration, Wagner evoked both the humanist Ludwig Feuerbach and the pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Wagner’s interests were never narrowly musical. He took a keen interest in the philosophical and intellectual currents of his age.
The only “dose of theoretical study” swallowed by the young Richard Wagner was “about half-a-year’s formal training in harmony and counterpoint in the ‘strict style,’” administered in 1831–2 by Theodor Weinlig of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. Earlier, “instruction in the fundamentals of harmony from a member of the Leipzig theatre orchestra. Gottfried Müller, achieved little, as the pupil was too much immersed in the fantastic musical realm of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Kapellmeister Kreisler and the Fantasiestücke to submit to the sober rigors of conventional theory.”
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